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Facebook is deprioritizing news posts, and that's great!

3 min read

A lot has been said about Facebook's upcoming changes to its news feed, which will downgrade posts from Facebook Pages and news publishers in favor of people you actually know. Facebook stock fell 4.5% in response: not a lot, but enough to be felt.

It's easy to see why they're changing their strategy here, even though it will result in shorter visits to Facebook and fewer ad dollars spent in the short-term. In addition to having been instrumental in the Brexit referendum and the instrument for foreign actors hoping to sway the US election (not to mention a propaganda weapon for the likes of Duterte), passively reading your Facebook feed makes you feel bad. Over time, that can only result in fewer people using the service. (It's also worth noting that linking itself so tightly to journalism may cause it difficulties in China.)

Publishers are variously up in arms. Digiday's post was particularly alarmist:

The end is nigh. Facebook is planning a major change to its news feed, starting as early as next week, that will decisively favor user content and effectively deprioritize publishers’ content, according to three publishers that have been briefed by the platform ahead of the move.

The end is nigh. Later on in the piece, one anonymous publishing executive is quoted as saying, "we're losing hope".

But I don't think any of this fear is warranted. This is the web, and Facebook isn't the only game in town. Publishers are already diversifying away from it in order to acquire readers, strengthening their businesses in the process. Facebook's monopolistic supplier power has been overwhelming for the last few years, and the result has not just been felt in the publishing businesses themselves, but in democratic society. A change is long overdue.

Some good thought experiments for web technologists in publishing houses are: what does it look like to retake control of our distribution? How can we work with other publishers, as well as startups and technology companies, to make reading the news easy and fun? We've been hacking the monolithic social network model to be a news distributor for the last decade, but what else is already out there, and who can we work with?

There's a lot out there, from new kinds of technologies explicitly designed for distribution that gives publishers more control, to new ways to pay for content, to interesting new platforms for discovery. And this is before we consider new paradigms like ambient computing (Alexa etc), AR and VR, which are all on the up.

Overall, a lot is possible on the web, if you speak to experts, understand your audience (and your potential audience) deeply, and approach distribution with an innovation mindset.

And to think, not so long ago, publishers were contemplating moving themselves wholesale onto Facebook itself. What a disaster that would have been.